In a world of Zoom calls, late nights watching Netflix, and social media scrolling, we’ve lost touch with the natural world around us. The average American spends 93% of their time inside (and that stat was before the pandemic) and 2 out of 5 Americans report feelings of anxiety and depression on a weekly basis. This might be a coincidence, but reconnecting with nature can’t hurt your health. In fact, nature therapy might even improve your mental and physical health!
One of the best ways to reconnect is through nature therapy. Nature therapy refers to activities designed to improve your mental and physical health. They’re often structured, making it easier to spend time outside and give your experience in nature more meaning.
But what is nature therapy?
Before we dive into the health benefits, what exactly is nature therapy? Nature therapy is a collection of nature-based practices to improve general health or target specific issues. It’s the idea that being among trees, gardens, orchards, parks, forests, water and animals, and away from the demands of modern life could be your medicine too. And happily, if you’re unable to go outside, plants in offices clean the air, and reduce particle penetration into the lungs.
Significant effects on cortisol levels and parasympathetic nerve activity have been found after only five minutes of being outside—as well as just viewing outside, smelling outside, or hearing outside when outside was a forest.
Being outside provides a variety of benefits for your immune system, including an increase in vitamin D levels. There is some debate about what specific aspects of nature improve your immune system. Some studies suggest sunlight, others an increase in microorganisms, and yet others point to the positive impacts of increased biodiversity. Whatever the reason, most studies agree: nature improves immunity. In fact, a 2021 review of the literature found increased time in nature led to a positive effects on the immunoregulatory pathways.
But nature could improve your immune system, even if you spend most of your time inside. A recent study looked at two groups of office workers, one with a live plant wall in their workspace and the other didn’t have any plants. The group which had plants saw increased immunity after a 28 day period while the group without plants did not.
For more ideas to use nature therapy inside your home or at the office, check out this guide to greening the indoors.
Increase life expectancy
Spending time in nature can increase your life expectancy too. This is because nature helps decrease your likelihood for a variety of physical and cognitive conditions. A 2020 study conducted in China looked at different factors which impacted life expectancy. While they found economic issues and quality of living were the biggest determinants for underdeveloped parts of China, there was one major factor which influenced life expectancy in the more developed cities: exposure to green spaces. People who lived in greener Chinese cities lived longer on average than those who lived in cities with less green space and more pollution.
Decrease risk of chronic illnesses and cancer
Cancer is one of the leading causes of death worldwide. Time in nature has been found to lower the risk of certain types of cancer. A 2018 study from Spain followed a group of 1,129 women with breast cancer and 1,619 women without breast cancer from 2008 to 2013. They tracked the time they spent in nature as well as various health indicators and found that time in nature decreased one’s risk of breast cancer. The same study did find the benefits were greater for those who spent time in nature away from big cities.
Nature doesn’t just decrease one’s risk of cancer, it increases your risk of other chronic conditions, such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease. There are a variety of studies linking a lower risk of various chronic illnesses to spending more time in nature:
- A 2018 study looked specifically at which environmental factors had the biggest impact on cardiovascular health. It found sunlight exposure and geographic features such as altitude were key indicators of cardiovascular health.
- Exposing the skin to 30 minutes of summer sunlight caused nitric oxide levels to go up and high blood pressure and insulin resistance to go down. Insulin resistance can turn into a number of harmful conditions, most notably diabetes.
- Certain nature activities, such as gardening, also decrease the risk of physical injuries. Gardening can be an excellent physical activity for the elderly because it provides health benefits similar to exercise without the strain and injury potential of some physical exercise, such as running.
Many people worldwide suffer from dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Luckily, time in nature has been found to help prevent these conditions and help those who are currently diagnosed with Alzheimer’s or dementia.
A 2021 review of the literature studied 22 research papers on green spaces and Alzheimer’s disease. These studies suggested that daily exposure to green spaces lowers one’s risk of Alzheimer’s disease.
Another study from 2006 looked specifically at how gardening impacted one’s risk of dementia. Gardening lowers one’s risk of getting dementia by 36%.
While there is some debate over why nature lowers one’s risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease–is it from exposure to sunlight, fresh air, sensory stimulation, or something else?–one thing is clear: time in nature can help improve cognitive processes.
Improve mental health
Nature provides a variety of physical health benefits, but it’s also great for your mental health too. In fact, the more time you spend in nature each day, the more your overall happiness increases.
A 2019 study found spending 10 minutes or more in nature 3 times a week can reduce biological indicators of stress by over 20%. This is because spending time outside helps you disconnect from stressors and reconnect to your natural environment.
A 2014 study found that those who spent more time in nature reported higher levels of sociability in local communities. Those who lived in neighborhoods with more green space and where residents spent more time outside socialized more often. Having a community is a key element to a happy life and spending time in nature can help build those communities.
Whether you’re looking to improve your mental health, increase your life expectancy, or decrease your risk for chronic illnesses, there’s one key recommendation: spend time in nature. Nature therapy can transform our lives for the better.
Unsure where to start with nature therapy? Check out these nature activities with proven health benefits.